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Do Child Abuse and Neglect Affect Teen Pregnancy Risk for Low Income Girls?

A worried teen girl.

More Than Poverty: The Effect of Child Abuse and Neglect on Teen Pregnancy Risk” (abstract). Sarah K. Garwood, Lara Gerassi, Melissa Jonson-Reid, Katie Plax, and Brett Drake. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 57, No. 2 (2015).

What it’s about: We know that certain youth, such as youth experiencing homelessness or those with a history of foster care, are more likely to become teen parents. Using records from several agencies including child protective services (CPS), emergency departments, Medicaid services, and juvenile courts, Garwood and her research team compared risk for teen pregnancy between children living in poverty with a CPS report history (of child abuse or neglect) and those living in poverty without one. From 1993 to 2009 the authors followed 3,281 girls who were 11 years old or younger at the beginning of the study to the age of 18.

Why read it: While teen birth rates declined for young women ages 15 to 19 according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report (PDF, 1.9MB), certain youth remain at increased risk of pregnancy. By controlling for poverty, history of child abuse or neglect, and other variables such as runaway record and mental health treatment, this study contributes to a deeper understanding of reasons certain youth continue to face higher pregnancy rates, Garwood et al. write. This information may be valuable for researchers, program managers, and practitioners working to address the experiences of this vulnerable population.

Biggest takeaways from the research: This study showed that overall, experiencing a single incident of child abuse or neglect was associated with an increased risk of pregnancy among girls and young women. Nearly 29 percent of girls with a CPS report history had at least one pregnancy from ages 10 to 17. By contrast, about 17 percent of those with a history of poverty, but no CPS history, had become pregnant at least once from ages 10 to 17.

Several factors made pregnancy more likely among girls and young women, such as:

  • Having a history of running away (88 percent higher risk of becoming pregnant).
  • Having a cognitive delay or learning disability requiring special education (60 percent higher risk of becoming pregnant).
  • Being born into poverty and continuing to experience poverty throughout childhood (40 percent higher risk of becoming pregnant).

Other factors contributed to lower likelihood of pregnancy among girls and young women, such as:

  • Having a record of treatment or services for mental illness (36 percent lower risk of becoming pregnant).
  • Having a parent or caregiver who had completed high school (25 percent lower risk of becoming pregnant).

Girls and young women with a record of delinquency before age 14 had no higher or lower risk of pregnancy. By contrast, those who received their first delinquency record after age 14 were significantly more likely (2.5 times more likely for each year) to become pregnant before age 18.

The authors highlight that older teens ​with a history of child abuse or neglect and living in areas with high poverty are a prime target for teen pregnancy prevention efforts. They suggest the supportive services and policies that focus on improving outcomes for children who have experienced abuse or neglect be extended throughout girls' and young women’s lives.

Moreover, Garwood et al. highlight, it is important for teen pregnancy interventions to address cognitive delays and learning disabilities within this population. The authors add that the increased risk connected with runaway history suggests that screening for sexual risk behaviors as a part of juvenile court and shelter processes followed by effective intervention may be another area of opportunity.

Additional references: Look for more articles about poverty and adolescent pregnancy in our digital library.

Read a summary of research on how socioeconomic factors affect teen pregnancy rates.

Explore The Exchange, an interactive platform from the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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